First-hand First Fridays:
First Friday has become something of a phenomenon nation-wide. For years now, galleries open their doors, street musicians and artists flock by the hundreds, and thousands of gallery-goers flit from location to location, quickly intoxicating themselves on free, cheap wine. It’s hard to say how many pieces actually sell on nights like this, but it is definitely something that helps vivify an art scene, and allows us artists to rub elbows and get the hell out of our studios for a night so we can see what our contemporaries are up to. In this short article I can’t possibly hope to track down the root of this phenomenon – aside from it just being good business, and a damn good time – but I do know from personal experience that this isn’t restricted to just one city or state.
So I wanted to begin this column, wherein I will be exploring First Fridays firsthand, in Phoenix, Arizona.
Phoenix is somewhat unique in that there is a not-for-profit (Artlink) that actually handles the management of their First Friday events. In addition to rather pretty full color maps that get distributed at all of the galleries and nearby restaurants, this allows for more cohesion between the galleries than I’ve seen in other cities without such an organization. I think I had an opportunity to speak briefly with one of the chief organizers for Artlink, Vedan Kircheimer. Unfortunately I was fairly drunk on that cheap wine I previously mentioned, so I don’t remember. This is of course the danger of going undercover. The sauce keeps you limber, but if you don’t watch yourself, it’ll just fuck you like a cheap whore. My sharpie-written “press pass, BITCHES” would be more than sufficient to get me on the inside. Now, I thought with some uneasiness, I just have to fight gravity, and win.
I didn’t have much time to finish this internal discussion. While I skeptically eyed another glass of sulfite-laden wine, I was introduced to my appointed guide for the whirlwind trip of galleries and weirdness that was about to ensue- simply introduced as Joey G, this wiry, animated character seemed to know everyone and anyone. If he didn’t know them, he’d talk to them all the same, with a rapid fire pace that only allowed me the chance for a quick head nod and handshake before I was being yanked on to our next victim.
In our travels I did manage to discover that he was the author of a DIY book called Traveling America Broke, mostly sold directly from the source, by hand, which got him both a sort of cult status, and a sort of infamy for openly admitting to sleeping with a slightly underage girl during his exploits. Personally, I’m not here to pass judgments, or make “if there’s grass on the field” jokes. There’s no chance I could’ve had a better Sherpa for this urban desert environment, jam-packed with freaks and gawkers. That’s what mattered. I was strictly on business. Show me where the action is, Joey.
My first encounter on this first Friday jaunt would ultimately be the most intriguing. I caught myself glancing in a small gallery space in a brick building. The inside was full of glowing screens with cryptic technical schematics, giant metal armatures, and even larger electrical generators. I turned to a guy nearby, and asked rather bluntly, “what’s this all about, then?”
I really didn’t think he’d have the slightest clue, but it appeared he did. “Hey Barry? Barry!” A short, incredibly energetic man turned around. He had some sort of welding goggles on, and giant rubber gloves. He was dirtier than a mechanic. “He’s Barry Schwartz,” our middle-man said.
I went over to Barry and tried to explain that I was a journalist. (I’m not of course, but this seems to get people talking. Press pass, bitches. I’m telling you.)
Barry started talking like Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now, and headed right out the back door. I think he was talking to me, but I couldn’t really be sure. The guy who had introduced us said to me, “you’d better follow him. He’ll keep talking whether you’re there or not, and this might be your only chance to meet him.”
I followed him into the yard. There was something here under a large black tarp. Barry stopped, and yanked it back, revealing a big, shiny, official looking SUV, with an FBI logo on the side-door. (Federal Borough of Idiocy, I believe it said beneath it).
“This got me in a lot of trouble,” he explained in passing.
Yeah, you don’t say…
Barry then led me inside the trailer from an 18 wheeler. It was laden with more gear than I could possible explain, or understand. It seemed to go on forever. Thankfully, I managed to snap a picture.
He started running wires into a battery of some kind, frantically explaining to me that “it all began when he was dropped on his head at the age of 5.” Our conversation continued from there but, despite the fact that I had sobered up quite a bit by this point, he was talking so quickly that I couldn’t possibly understand half of what he was saying. Like a stranger in a strange land, I did a lot of nodding, and smiling. I did manage to catch him saying that he was about to “play” with 500,000
He led me back to this studio, and hooked a bunch of dry ice into the armature. Most of the units in the room had contact mics affixed to them, so as giant arcs of electricity shot around, we were also treated with some of the most horrifically loud, screeching metallic sounds you can imagine. It made most experimental industrial music sound like easy listening. At this point, I was forced to wonder exactly how this madman had convinced all of us to join him as he played out his Zeus the Thunder God fantasies while our brains bled out from our ears. Oh yeah, right. Because it’s fucking great. (I’m sure the wine helped.)
I have to admit, after that, the rest of the night was somewhat predictable. Gallery after gallery of paintings, a lot of street bands- some of them interesting, most of them painfully mediocre. Really, my overall impression of Phoenix’s art scene was mixed. The scene is, surprisingly, one of the most vibrant that I’ve yet encountered. There’s less snobbery here, less concern or useless debates about “high” or “low” art, and an environment that’s truly conducive to just going out and having a fucking good time. However, somewhere in there, a lot of these galleries seemed to leave curation out of the process. I don’t know if there simply isn’t a real cluster of talented visual artists in Phoenix, or if they haven’t been found yet,
but the work that I saw in that department left me less than intrigued, impressed, or otherwise moved in any notable fashion. There were moderate exceptions, as there always are.
For my next First Friday, I’m hitting up Philly. Since I live in Philly at the moment, you may see quite a few from here. But no worries- surprisingly, Philly has a lot to offer when it comes to the visual arts.